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“Breast is best!” my lactation consultant Heather cheerfully reminded me. We stood in the hospital gift shop surrounded by cheesy Get Well cards two weeks after I delivered my daughter. She led me to the back wall in the corner, where breastfeeding products hung on the peg board.

“I promise I’m not trying to sell you on Medela products; the hospital just has a contract with them. But they do make excellent pumps.” I stifled a gasp at the price tag on the white and yellow box containing their electric pump, which cost a whopping $399. I was still wondering how to squeeze the $2,000 bill for my Cesarean delivery into my family’s tight budget.

I plastered a polite smile on my face as Heather rattled off other items I would need. There was a nifty breast pump bag, extra flanges, nipple balms, breast pads, and even a hand pump for emergency situations. I was afraid to ask what constituted “emergency situations” in breastfeeding. The only thing she did not name, which I desperately needed more than all of the above, was money.

“Also, the hospital offers a pump rental program if you need it.”

My ears perked up. “How much does it cost?”

“It’s just $75 a month.” She smiled.

“Well, thank you so much! I will have to talk it over with my husband.” I left the gift shop empty-handed, heavy of breast and of heart.

I hadn’t been entirely honest with Heather; I did have a used Ameda breast pump that a mother from my church  donated to me. Shortly after I gave birth, I mentioned the pump to the consultant and her nose wrinkled. “There’s a risk of bacteria and it’s really best to use a completely new pump you can trust.”

But the prohibitive cost left me few choices. By my rough calculations, after about six months of renting the pump at $75, I would have spent the amount of the pump in the store. There was no rent-to-own option, so breastfeeding for the recommended 12 months would cost me double the retail value of the actual pump. Still, I didn’t have $400 lying around to make the wiser financial decision.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that I am not the only Black mother in this predicament. While the reasons vary from funding and time to stigma’s connected to breastfeeding, 61.6% of black mothers breastfed compared to 81.1% of white mothers, and 91% of Asian mothers. Out of the black mothers who began breastfeeding, only 16% continued for a full year.

Breast was best, but breast would not cost less in the short run. I thought about the brown-skinned young women in the waiting room of my nurse midwife’s office, many of whom were very young. We were all slated to give birth at the same hospital, which had loaded me up with free bottles of formula and formula coupons and sign-up sheets for companies that supplied more formula. Beyond the lactation consultant and some flanges (which I used during my stay), I did not receive any boost toward breastfeeding. It became clear to me very quickly that breastfeeding would be challenging for working class mothers who did not have access to a pump, or whose jobs were inflexible with break times. Formula would become a very obvious option with the challenges of a decreasing milk supply and a hungry infant.

That night, I stood over the stove boiling flanges, tubes and storage bottles. I said a little prayer over the parts as I hooked them to the electronic pump. I hit the switch. A rhythmic whir sounded from the little white box. My breasts tingled, signaling a milk let-down, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

Were it not for the kindness of my fellow church member, I could not have afforded to breastfeed my baby for the year that I did. I only wish all breastfeeding mothers received such a community investment toward the health of their babies.

Luckily, breastfeeding communities for black mothers are starting to form around the country; while not widespread it is a move in the right direction.  Organizations such as the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association  in Detroit, African American Breastfeeding Network in Milwaukee, and the online community Black Women Do Breastfeed amongst others look to create the village that was so necessary for the breastfeeding journey.


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